“There’s a Huge Difference Between What is Good for American Companies Versus What is Good for the American Economy”

As I wrote last year:

Some of the top economists say that America has suffered a permanent loss of jobs:

  • JPMorgan Chase’s Chief Economist Bruce Kasman told Bloomberg:
    [We've had a] permanent destruction of hundreds of thousands of jobs in industries from housing to finance.

  • The chief economists for Wells Fargo Securities, John Silvia, says:
    Companies “really have diminished their willingness to hire labor for any production level,” Silvia said. “It’s really a strategic change,” where companies will be keeping fewer employees for any particular level of sales, in good times and bad, he said.

  • Former Merrill Lynch chief economist David Rosenberg writes:
    The number of people not on temporary layoff surged 220,000 in August and the level continues to reach new highs, now at 8.1 million. This accounts for 53.9% of the unemployed — again a record high — and this is a proxy for permanent job loss, in other words, these jobs are not coming back. Against that backdrop, the number of people who have been looking for a job for at least six months with no success rose a further half-percent in August, to stand at 5 million — the long-term unemployed now represent a record 33% of the total pool of joblessness.

  • Nobel Prize winner Edmund Phelps and Pacific Investment Management Co. Chief Executive Officer Mohamed El-Erian say the fallout from the deepest recession in more than five decades is driving the so-called natural rate higher, perhaps to 7 percent.

And Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich wrote yesterday:

The basic assumption that jobs will eventually return when the economy recovers is probably wrong. Some jobs will come back, of course. But the reality that no one wants to talk about is a structural change in the economy that’s been going on for years but which the Great Recession has dramatically accelerated.

Under the pressure of this awful recession, many companies have found ways to cut their payrolls for good. They’ve discovered that new software and computer technologies have made workers in Asia and Latin America just about as productive as Americans, and that the Internet allows far more work to be efficiently outsourced abroad….

In addition, as AP reported last year:

“I think the unemployment rate will be permanently higher, or at least higher for the foreseeable future,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist and co-founder of Moody’s Economy.com.

***

“The linkage between growth in the economy and growth in jobs is not what it was. I don’t know if it’s permanently broken or temporarily broken. But clearly we are not seeing the sort of increase in employment that one would normally expect,” said [Bruce Bartlett, a former Treasury Department economist].

AP noted yesterday:

Corporate profits are up. Stock prices are up. So why isn’t anyone hiring?

Actually, many American companies are — just maybe not in your town. They’re hiring overseas, where sales are surging and the pipeline of orders is fat.

***

The trend helps explain why unemployment remains high in the United States, edging up to 9.8% last month, even though companies are performing well: All but 4% of the top 500 U.S. corporations reported profits this year, and the stock market is close to its highest point since the 2008 financial meltdown.

But the jobs are going elsewhere. The Economic Policy Institute, a Washington think tank, says American companies have created 1.4 million jobs overseas this year, compared with less than 1 million in the U.S. The additional 1.4 million jobs would have lowered the U.S. unemployment rate to 8.9%, says Robert Scott, the institute’s senior international economist.

“There’s a huge difference between what is good for American companies versus what is good for the American economy,” says Scott.

***

Many of the products being made overseas aren’t coming back to the United States. Demand has grown dramatically this year in emerging markets like India, China and Brazil.

And President Obama pointed out in October that tax laws are a large part of the reason that so many jobs are being shipped abroad:

For years, our tax code has actually given billions of dollars in tax breaks that encourage companies to create jobs and profits in other countries.

***

[Some] in Washington have consistently fought to keep these corporate loopholes open. Over the last four years alone, [some congress members] in the House voted 11 times to continue rewarding corporations that create jobs and profits overseas — a policy that costs taxpayers billions of dollars every year.

That doesn’t make a lot sense. It doesn’t make sense for American workers, American businesses, or America’s economy. A lot of companies that do business internationally make an important contribution to our economy here at home. That’s a good thing. But there is no reason why our tax code should actively reward them for creating jobs overseas. Instead, we should be using our tax dollars to reward companies that create jobs and businesses within our borders.

What’s Good for the Big Companies Ain’t So Good for America

We’ve all been taught “What’s good for [the big company] is good for America“.

But as Jim Quinn writes:

As a percentage of national income, corporate profits are 9.5%. They have only topped 9% twice in history – in 2006 and 1929. When you see the paid Wall Street shills parade on CNBC every day proclaiming the huge corporate profit growth ahead, keep these data points in mind. Do profits generally rise dramatically from all time peaks?

You might ask yourself, if corporations are doing so well how come real unemployment exceeds 20%? The answer lies in who is generating the profits and how they are doing it. It seems that the fantastic profits are not being generated by domestic non-financial companies employing middle class Americans producing goods. Pre-tax domestic nonfinancial corporate profits are not close to record levels as a share of national income. They exceeded 15% of national income once in the late 1940s, and repeatedly topped 12% in the 1950s and 1960s; in the third quarter of this year, they were 7.03% of national income. I wonder who is making the profits.

According to BEA data, financial industry profits and “rest of world” profits — that is, the money U.S.-based corporations make overseas — are relatively much higher now than they were in the 1950s or 1960s. And the taxes paid by corporations are much lower now than they were then, as a share of national income. The reason that corporate profits are near their all-time highs is that Wall Street corporations and mega multinational corporations are making gobs of loot and paying less of it out in taxes.

And as I noted last year – paraphrasing President Obama – companies that do business internationally do not make nearly as much of a contribution to our economy here at home as they should:

Daniel Gross points out that part of the reason that the American stock markets are going up even though unemployment is rising and the real economy suffering is because multinational corporations headquartered in the U.S. are experiencing strong sales abroad ….

The fact that companies based in America are raking in profits from sales abroad is good for American workers, right?

No.

Gross points out that American workers don’t benefit because a lot of the goods sold abroad by American multinationals are made abroad:

If companies participated in foreign markets primarily by exporting U.S.-made goods, this shift would be good news for the U.S. economy and workers. But that’s not how it works. In fact, in the months after the global credit meltdown, U.S. exports plummeted. They bottomed in April, at $120.6 billion, and though they have been rising, the August 2009 total is still 20 percent below the August 2008 total. Globalization is changing the way we do business. It’s not a matter of U.S. companies exporting goods—burgers, soda, cars, software—made in the United States to Beijing but rather, making goods overseas and selling them overseas

“Based on a Russian fairy tale and produced in Russia using local talent, the film is the latest step in Disney’s broad push into local language production,” the FT reports. As Disney CEO Robert Iger put it: “We would not be able to grow the Disney brand … if we just created product in the US and exported it to the rest of the world.” If Book of Masters succeeds, it will be good for Disney’s American shareholders but won’t do a whole lot of good for its U.S.-based employees. Or consider American icon General Motors. GM’s sales in China are rocking. In the first nine months, the company sold 1.3 million cars in China, including more than 181,000 in September. By contrast, GM in the United States in the first nine months sold 1.5 million cars in the United States, down 36.4 percent from the year before. And in September, GM sold just 156,673 cars in the United States. That growth in China is good for GM’s shareholders and for some of its executives. But since most of the cars sold in China are produced there, with parts produced by suppliers in China, rising sales in the Middle Kingdom won’t translate into jobs for unionized workers in the Middle West.

The rising U.S. stock market and a weak, slow-growing U.S. consumer sector aren’t really in contradiction. Given the large-scale trends transforming the global economy—and the role of large U.S. companies in it—it may be possible to have a sustainable rally in American stocks without a sustainable rally by American consumers.

Don’t Multinationals Pay A Lot in Taxes?

Well, at least the multinationals are paying a good chunk of taxes into the American economy, right?

Not exactly.

The Washington Post notes:

About two-thirds of corporations operating in the United States did not pay taxes annually from 1998 to 2005, according to a new report scheduled to be made public today from the U.S. Government Accountability Office…

In 2005, about 28 percent of large corporations paid no taxes…

Dorgan and Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) requested the report out of concern that some corporations were using “transfer pricing” to reduce their tax bills. The practice allows multi-national companies to transfer goods and assets between internal divisions so they can record income in a jurisdiction with low tax rates

[Senator] Levin said: “This report makes clear that too many corporations are using tax trickery to send their profits overseas and avoid paying their fair share in the United States.”

Indeed, as Pulitzer prize winning journalist David Cay Johnston documents, American multinationals pay much less in taxes than they should because they use a widespread variety of tax-avoidance scams and schemes, including:

  • Selling valuable assets of the American companies to foreign subsidiaries based in tax havens for next to nothing, so that those valuable assets can be taxed at much lower foreign rates
  • Pretending that costs were spent in the United States, so that the companies can count them as costs or deductions in the U.S. and pay less taxes to the American government
  • Booking profits as if they occurred in the subsidiary’s tax haven countries, so that taxes paid on profits are at the much lower safe haven rate
  • Working out sweetheart deals with certain foreign governments, so that the companies can pretend they paid more in foreign taxes than they actually did, to obtain higher U.S. tax credits than are warranted
  • Pretending they are headquartered in tax havens like Bermuda, the Cayman Islands or Panama, so that they can enjoy all of the benefits of actually being based in America (including the use of American law and the court system, listing on the Dow, etc.), with the tax benefits associated with having a principal address in a sunny tax haven.
  • And myriad other scams

As Johnston documents, the American economy is hurt by the massive underpayment of taxes by the huge multinationals.

But at least the stock market helps the average American, right?

Well, as I pointed out in March:

Even Alan Greenspan recently called the recovery “extremely unbalanced,” driven largely by high earners benefiting from recovering stock markets and large corporations.

***

As economics professor and former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich writes today in an outstanding piece:

Some cheerleaders say rising stock prices make consumers feel wealthier and therefore readier to spend. But to the extent most Americans have any assets at all their net worth is mostly in their homes, and those homes are still worth less than they were in 2007. The “wealth effect” is relevant mainly to the richest 10 percent of Americans, most of whose net worth is in stocks and bonds.

As I noted in May:

As of 2007, the bottom 50% of the U.S. population owned only one-half of one percent of all stocks, bonds and mutual funds in the U.S. On the other hand, the top 1% owned owned 50.9%.

***

(Of course, the divergence between the wealthiest and the rest has only increased since 2007.)

And professor G. William Domhoff just updated his “Who Rules America” study, showing that the richest 10% own 98.5% of all financial securities, and that:

The top 10% have 80% to 90% of stocks, bonds, trust funds, and business equity, and over 75% of non-home real estate. Since financial wealth is what counts as far as the control of income-producing assets, we can say that just 10% of the people own the United States of America.

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